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Raindrops on rooftops and papaya for parasites

By Andrew De Young

Amy Groenenboom conducts her research on malaria parasites in a locked lab on the lower level of the science building.

Amy Groenenboom conducts her research on malaria parasites in a locked lab on the lower level of the science building.

There aren’t many students who would shed blood over their homework. Then again, Amy Groenenboom, a biology major in her senior year, isn’t your everyday student.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” she shrugs, then grins. “Some of the nursing students help me give the blood. I’m used to it by now.” The fact that she’s doing all this for a grade doesn’t hurt, either. The blood she’s giving will eventually be home to malaria parasites, parasites that are essential to the research project she’s currently conducting.

Groenenboom isn’t the only one giving blood (figuratively this time) for independent scientific research. She’s part of a class titled “Directed Senior Research,” a requirement for all senior biology majors. And students from other divisions of the sciences do independent research as well, often without prodding from faculty members.

James Mahaffy, the professor of biology who has helped Groenenboom get her project up and running, says that independent research helps to supplement the learning students gain from textbooks and lectures. But there’s a selfish glint in his eye as well—he likes senior projects because he loves science, and every once in a while one of his students comes up with something really interesting.

“One of our earliest students in Directed Research looked at nematode parasites in horses living in Sioux County,” he says. “That had practical implications. And more recently, a student named Josh Warolin did some research that had potential implications for understanding spina bifida.”

Although the results are not in, Groenenboom’s project has the potential to be important as well. She got the idea while visiting the website of a group called ECHO, a Christian organization that does missions work with agriculture and disease study. On that website, Groenenboom learned of a tea made of papaya leaves, traditionally used as a remedy for malaria. She didn’t think much of it at first, but before long she got to wondering whether there was any compelling reason to believe that the tea actually helped to fight the disease.

Although Mahaffy liked the idea, he wasn’t sure whether it would be safe to conduct the experiment at Dordt. “You have to culture malaria in red blood cells, and I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to pull it off here.” Eventually, he put Groenenboom in touch with Dr. John Adams at Notre Dame.

“They grow the parasite there,” Groenenboom explains, “so they showed me their set-up and gave me some cultures to get started.”

A few months later, the research is still going well. Groenenboom, who plans to pursue a career in physical therapy after graduating in the spring, says that she would love for her research to help in the fight against malaria, but adds, “I’m not getting my hopes up.”

Each time it rains, Barry Viss carries his apparatus to the roof of the science building to photograph the size and speed of raindrops.

Each time it rains, Barry Viss carries his apparatus to the roof of the science building to photograph the size and speed of raindrops.

Groenenboom isn’t the only one doing interesting research, however. Barry Viss, a senior physics major from Ripon, California, is in the middle of a fascinating independent study on rain.

“I got the idea for the project by just listening during thunderstorms,” says Viss. “I noticed that sometimes after the thunder and lightning pass, it seems to rain harder.”

He asked professor Arnold Sikkema if there was any scientific explanation for this observation. Sikkema didn’t know, and when he found out that very little research had been done on the topic, Viss’s independent study was born. For the past few months, he has been studying the sizes and speeds of individual raindrops, essentially trying to figure out if his observation was accurate or if he was just imagining things.

“Before the experiment, everything came from my ear—the rain sounded harder after the thunder had passed,” he says. “The question is, were the drops bigger, or faster, or were there more of them, or what?”

To answer that question, Viss set up a rather complex apparatus designed to take multiple pictures of individual raindrops. Combining a video camera and a strobe light that flashed three hundred times per second, Viss was able to capture individual raindrops on tape and analyze their sizes and speeds. Currently, he is busy poring over thousands of frames and trying to find a way to quantify his data.

Although both Groenenboom and Viss are hopeful that the results of their experiments will turn out to be significant, they know too much about the science world to believe that their research will yield miraculous breakthroughs. At best, their experiments will act as stepping stones for future research. And the worst case scenario—simply having the pleasure of putting learning into practice—isn’t so bad, either.